The Peking Opera
Costumes and Colors

A Still Image from the Peking OperaIn the Peking Opera the costumes are as important as the characters themselves because each piece tells a story. Sewn in workshops behind the theater streets, every piece is intricately made with great consideration to design and color, and these gorgeous pieces of art can cost thousands of dollars.

In the beginning of the play the actor walks onto the stage and without them uttering a syllable the audience should be able to tell what the actor’s role is just from looking at their body language and costume. This walk is called the biaoyan and means “to show” (Riley 54).

As with most things in the Peking Opera the costumes are made specifically for the exact role and not the character. Because of this, most costumes are not made for a set period but are a synthesis of many times. This is necessary because in the modern opera there are rarely performances from one set play; instead there are parts taken from various traditional stories.  For actors to be able to perform different plays in one playbill, the clothing needs to be flexible. All costumes are based off of older designs with little variation.


Opera costumes at the Beijing Opera SchoolFor each character there are specific costumes. Wu-shêng wear the k’ai-k’ao, a war costume. It has many parts including mail and padding to create the effect of a fierce and strong warrior.

The nobility wear the Mang-p’ao robe. This costume is for emperors and important officials, but is normally only worn on special occasions. It is a loose long robe with a round neck and has slits on the side so that it swings delicately as the dignitaries walk, giving them an air of importance. It also comes with a loose jade belt (Yü- tai). The female’s mang p’ao are cut to the knee and accompanied with a narrow skirt. Another robe for nobility is the tieh-ts, which is the everyday garb of the higher officials. It is usually made of silk or satin and buttoned to one side.

Women and peasant warriors wear pants, with short jackets that are tied at the waist.

Some accessories for the robes are yü-tai (a jade girdle), pu-tzû (insignia on chest), and ping-chin-chia (coat of mail).

Colors of Costumes

An Emperor’s Mang-p’aoThe colors of all costumes are important. For example, the emperor is usually the only person to wear yellow, and on his Mang-p’ao the embroidered dragons always fly upwards. If any other officials wear the yellow, their dragons must fly downwards. The other colors of the robes are red, green, orange, white, black, and blue. Each color represents a different rank. Red denotes faithful army commanders, green is for generals and statesmen, orange for older statesmen, white for young generals and ministers, blue for dishonest statesmen, and black for the brave, honest, and upright (but in some situations black can mean poverty). The importance of the colors comes from older times when dye was a commodity and only the nobility were allowed to wear the primary colors while the common citizens had to wear blended colors. Each color is tied to the five elements (water, earth, fire, wood, and metal), which are also linked to the five directions (the Chinese compass includes center). Red is the south (fire), black is the north (water), white is the west (metal), blue and green are east (wood), and yellow is the center (earth). Because of these ties to the elements and directions, the different personality types associated with each color were created.


A Bearded Opera SingerThe beards shown in the Peking Opera signify wealth and temperament. The beards are tied on wire and strung from the actors ears. The string sits on the actor’s upper lip, making it hard to talk, so it takes great skill for one to master performing with it on. A long beard indicates wealth and power, and narrow whiskers mean learned men, while short thick beard covering most of a lover‘s face symbolizes being rough and selfish.


Paper cut of a Dou Erdun mask: a character similar to Robin Hood The masks the worn in the opera are as beautiful and intricate as the costumes themselves. These masks (called kou-lien or mo-lien) are painted on the actors’ face before the show and are an intricate, direct representation of the character’s motivation and inner feelings.

The need for makeup masks began in the earlier time periods when plays could only be seen by natural daylight or candlelight. Because of the lighting, it became necessary for the actors’ faces to stand out in order for the audience to be able to understand the character they were watching. Although the existence of masks is not new, the ornate nature of modern masks is only about 500 years old (relatively contemporary in respect to the long history of the opera).

The characters may have eyebrows and mouths painted on to give extra expression to their characters. For example, the broken face (suei or p’o-lien) is created by using lines to distort the eyes and nose, giving the character a damaged look, and is used for evil men, bandits, or the wounded. Rather than overpowering the performance, these brightly colored masks add an extra layer to the play, a feature an experienced actor can use to their advantage.

Masks for the famous play Journey to the WestMasks may also be in the image of an animal (such as a monkey), or symbolize deities (clouds represent the god of clouds). Usually the face paint is mixed with egg whites or oil to give an “awake” look to the characters. The only case where this method is not used is in the case of evil characters whose faces are pale. But although people with white faces may be seen as evil, a grey ashen face without expression depicts true malevolence.

In the Peking Opera, women and heroes are the only characters allowed to be without a mask. Women’s makeup is usually simple: peony petals are added to the makeup to give the best for oval faced women since a narrow oval face is the ideal shape in China.

Like all other aspects of the opera, color is extremely important to the understanding of the character. As humans are multi-faceted creatures, a character may have many colors painted on their face, and each color is another aspect of their personality. There are many templates or patterns of how the masks should be applied, one of the oldest being the san-k’uai-wa where the face is broken into three parts, the two sides of the face and brows.

Mask Colors and Correlations

Mask for Zhang Fei, a Chinese military general


Loyalty, courageousness (i.e. heroes, military commanders)


A stringent following of the law regardless of personal interests


Loyalty (less than red)


Rough and uncultured, crafty and haughty


Reserved but wise


Devils and demons


Supernatural creatures (gods)


Pure evil

This is the mask for Zhang Fei, a Chinese military general. His makeup shows that he was brave and loyal, but with a bit of a bad temper, as you can see based on the table below: